June 23, 2019. Early morning, high on Koma Kulshan’s Roman Wall, I am third on our rope team when we come to a stop. Several teams are behind us and begin to form a line. I look to my right down the 600 foot slope of the Wall. Alan, our guide, walking the point yells, “We’ve got to get off this wall!”
We stay perched. A thought jabs me: why am I here?
I see Alan talking on his radio. He is speaking with Melissa.
You know her.
Melissa Arnot. Six summits of Everest. One without supplemental oxygen. She never falls. Her crampons never catch her cuffs. The rangers call her to ask about trail conditions. Her headband is always in place.
She is our master guide.
Yesterday we stood at the trail head. Melissa gathered us around her and said,
“This is the goal.”
I looked around. We stood before the bathrooms. Earlier Melissa and Alan had given us small, blue bags that looked like the bags dog walkers carry. She explained there are no toilets on the mountain and we will carry out everything we brought in with us. I did the math.
But, by “this is our goal,” she meant our goal is to get back. As Ed Viesturs said, “Getting to the top is optional; getting down is mandatory.”
Last year I had climbed Rainier as part of Melissa’s Juniper Foundation fundraiser. I was, in my opinion, the weakest climber of the group, and when the lead guide on my rope team gave Steve (who would later summit Everest) the lead, I dreamed that one day I would hold the same honor.
But sitting in my tent at Camp Muir with a severe cold waiting for the guides to wake us for our summit bid, I had promised myself I would never climb a big mountain again.
So when I spoke with Melissa six months later and she invited me to join as a client her guided climb up Baker, I immediately said, “Yes.”
Baker, more properly called by its original name, Koma Kulshan (Great White Watcher), is part of the Cascade Range, an archipelago of stratovolcanoes in Washington state. Kulshan is still active, second to Mt. St. Helens, which blew up in 1980. At 10,781 feet, it is not as high as Rainier, but it is high enough for high altitude sickness to set in. And like Rainier, she is heavily glaciated, offering risks of avalanches and hidden crevasses. My great fear is corking, which can happen if you fall deep into a crevasse and get hopelessly wedged into the narrows.
I know how to get into shape for a big mountain (although actually doing that is another matter), and I know what to do when everything goes right, but I do not know what to do when anything goes wrong.
And so I am with Alan and Melissa. I trust them completely. They make the decisions about the risks unknown to me to preempt disasters. The day before our climb, Melissa had surveyed the route herself and discovered a crevasse so big the way was impassable, so she switched us to the north side of the mountain. Our path became the Railroad Grade (a razor’s edge populated by marmots) and then the summit by the Easton Glacier. She moved up our summit day because of an incoming storm.
As we climbed the Railroad, Melissa was in the lead, and I heard her say, “When I was in Kathmandu waiting to fly into Lukla…” and I wished I could speak a sentence like that too. As we climbed other guides recognized Melissa and said hello. Their clients swung their heads to glimpse the celebrity mountaineer.
I feel particularly honored to be hiking with Melissa. Not so much because of her accomplishments, but because of her worldview. Most mountaineers talk about what they climbed and how they climbed it, but Melissa is the rare one who talks about the “why” of climbing. George Mallory, when asked why he wanted to climb Everest, famously quipped, “Because it’s there,” but there is so much more reason why.
Rene Daumal, in his unfinished “Mt. Analogue,” wrote a passage that I return to often:
“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When you can no longer see, one can at least still know.”
Melissa writes about mountains in the same way. She notes the simplicity of the mountains, which reduce our lives to what is necessary. She talks about asking questions and finding answers on her climbs. And then there is the sense of connection with others relying on one another to be successful and safe. She is a kind of mountaineer philosopher.
We set up base camp on the lower limb of the Easton Glacier, further up than some, but not as far as others. Alan showed us proper rest steps, French steps, and duck walking. He taught us how to arrest our falls with our ice axes and how to anchor and stop the fall of a teammate on our rope line. All of this so we would not tumble down the mountain the next day.
We had dinners of dehydrated foods. Mine had beans, a poor choice by me given the toilet rules. I saw Alan pull a grinder from his backpack and noticed Melissa was eating slices of pizza, which she confessed she had swiped from her friend’s refrigerator that morning. Melissa gave us tricks of her trade – “Stuff your down jacket pockets with the food you want to eat when we stop” and I thought this was especially ingenious as I put Snickers bars in my pockets.
“And now,” she said, “you need to go to bed. We will wake you sometime between midnight and 3:00 AM.”
This vagueness caused me some anxiety.
“And it’s OK if you don’t sleep. No one sleeps the night before a big climb.”
I asked if it was OK if I slept. She said that was fine.
The women chit chatted in their tent next to me. I heard Alan and Melissa laughing near their tent. I drifted. I dreamed. I heard snoring. It was me. And then I heard a voice like Melissa’s saying, “It’s time to get up.”
The sky was an infinity of stars. I traced the only constellation I know, The Big Dipper, and followed the line of the Milky Way. I watched a four star constellation moving up the mountain – a team already heading up, their headlamps visible from afar.
Melissa secured my harness and checked my crampons. I could not help but feel like a little boy whose mother was tying his shoes and zippering his coat. I looked at our team: helmets and headlamps, packs and ice picks, boots and spiky crampons. We had only what we needed, nothing more, function over form.
The moment just before summit day starts always brings a wind of anxiety over me. The same pattern of questions – am I strong enough, am I fit enough, are we going to fall off the mountain or into a crevasse – always hit me.
Slow and steady is the mountaineer‘s mantra. The first time I saw climbers, I laughed at their pace. But now, I understand and embrace it. We keep our heart rates low, keep our muscles free of lactic acid buildup, and stay strong for a climb that can last twenty hours.
We left base camp, slow and steady, not yet roped, Melissa in the lead. As we approached a ridge line of rock (called a cleaver because it cleaves a glacier in two) Melissa suddenly plummeted to her waist. I thought, a crevasse so soon?
“There’s a pocket here,” she said, pulling herself free. “Step over it.”
On the other side we formed rope teams. The three women wanted to be on an all-female team, so the three male clients roped up with Alan. He is decades younger than me, but I take him as my big brother. Rope teammates begin to feel a bond and an annoyance with each other – we must walk at the same pace, keeping our rope taut so we don’t step on it and fray it with the spikes of our crampons. This seems easy for most, but seems impossible for me – I constantly overtake and lose the tautness of the line, or undertake and force the climber ahead of me to jerk me forward.
For hours we climbed in the dark, in the small headlamp lit circle of each of our worlds, and somewhere above was the way to Kushan’s summit, hiding herself in darkness. The path, slope, and crevasse risks were wholly unknown to me. Sometimes I heard Melissa’s voice checking in on Alan’s radio. I listened to the click and crunch of what Melissa has called “the language of crampons” (she’s a mountain poet too).
The women were stronger than the men. Our sister team marched at their slow and steady pace and we at ours until they vanished ahead of us in the blur of clouds and snow and other teams passed us or we passed them. I remained alone in my thoughts, focused on my steps, trying to be true in my placement, but routinely I caught my crampons on the cuffs of my pants and either ripped them or fell or both. This became my method. My team, my brothers, took my falling in stride.
And then we reached the Roman Wall, the face of the mountain. Best not to look, I thought. But I looked. It was too steep and too high and I just wanted to hear Alan say, “We’ve come far enough and we have nothing to prove and so let’s head back down.”
We kept climbing. Here was the place for rest steps and French steps and duck steps. I rehearsed in my mind the anchor move for when someone falls, knowing I really did not know how to do it. An hour of this until we came to a stop on 600 feet of drop and Alan says, “We have to get off this wall!”
This would be an especially bad time for the mountain–volcano to lose her temper and explode.
I don’t hear Melissa’s reply to Alan, but I am certain she is not discussing mountain philosophy or poetry with him. It’s simple. We need to get off this wall. Or we can tumble down 600 feet in a fifteen minute tailspin tangle.
And, we start walking, slow and steady.
The women are at the summit, victorious, joyful. I feel a swell of pride for them, knowing they did this as an all-female team, which was something deprived of them before. I sit. There is absolutely no view because of the snow and clouds, nothing to take in, nothing to do but rest and eat. I put on my down jacket and pull out a Snickers bar, which is frozen.
I see Alan and Melissa conferring. Alan approaches me.
“Are you OK with walking the point?”
“Yes.” I nod my head. “I am OK with walking point.”
And so I walk the point, glowing with pride.
“Do you see the trail?” asks Alan.
I see snow and haze and footprints and nothing. Somewhere ahead is the Roman Wall and a 600 foot plunge.
“Yes,” I confirm. “I see the trail.”
I immediately walk us off the trail.
Alan tells me to go left. He has a GPS to guide our way. I am not walking the point in the true manner. More so I am a Alan’s toy car turning as he directs me on his control box. A little to the left. More to the left.
Had I reached the edge of the abyss of the Roman Wall?
Eventually, the whiteout dissolves to clarity. I see the sky and what I believe to be the archipelago of the Cascades. Alan takes the point and walks us off the trial. I laugh to myself and feel humble and proud and joyous. I have used none of the blue bags. I have climbed, I have seen. My sisters, my brothers: we have not fallen off or deep into the mountain. We shall achieve Melissa‘s goal. I swear I will climb a big mountain again. I pose for a photo with Alan. Only later will I realize Melissa, the great mother mountain, has photobombed us in the back.
And I think, this is why, this is why, so much more than because it is there.
Christopher P. Kriesen, July, 2019